Update from Minnesota: Former police officer’s trial will hinge on autopsy of George Floyd

Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Lawyers say prosecutors have a strong case, but juries can be unpredictable

Minnesota is bracing itself for the March trial of Derek Chauvin, when 12 jurors will decide whether the former Minneapolis police officer committed second-degree murder when he pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, handcuffed and face down on Chicago Avenue, on Memorial Day last year.

The story should be familiar to the entire jury pool by now, having traveled from a 17-year-old girl’s cellphone at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue around the world, inspiring protests large and small. From the Champs de Mars in Paris to one mom alone on a Minnesota highway, people raised “I can’t breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” signs. Statues of slave traders were thrown into rivers. Laws were changed. Police were put under a microscope.

It all began when a Cup Foods clerk in south Minneapolis called 911 to report that a man tried to buy cigarettes with a  $20 bill the clerk suspected was fake. Police arrived to find Floyd in a car outside the store. They tried to put him in a squad car, but Floyd resisted, saying he was claustrophobic, so he was moved to the street, face down and handcuffed.

Floyd said “I can’t breathe” 16 times and called “Mama.” Even after Floyd’s eyes closed, after his body went limp, and a full seven minutes after the officers called for medical assistance, Chauvin, who is also charged with manslaughter, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.

The three other officers who were on the scene — Thomas Lane, who held down Floyd’s legs; J. Alexander Kueng, who knelt on Floyd’s back;  and Tou Thao, who kept onlookers at bay — go on trial in August for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. The outcome of Chauvin’s trial will undoubtedly affect their cases.

The way police responded will be scrutinized by a jury, whose selection is scheduled to begin March 8, barring any delays.

The trial will be in the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, where plywood and barricades have gone up again in case protests are accompanied by looting and arson, as they were last year.

Videos of the incident that sparked a global revolt will come into focus again, except this time played in a courtroom and livestreamed all over the world.

Andrew Gordon tries cases in Hennepin County as director of community legal services for the Legal Rights Center — a nonprofit, community law firm — and expects the defense attorneys to focus on the cause of death.

“Did the knee kill him or did George Floyd die because he was on drugs and he was a bigger gentleman who had heart failure?” he said. “I think at the end of the day, that’s what the defense is largely gonna look like.”

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin – Photo: Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office

Autopsies will be key

Expect scrutiny of the autopsies, Gordon said.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker will be a central figure. He ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, saying he died when his heart stopped as police restrained him, compressing his neck. The autopsy also said  he had heart disease and fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, and tested positive for COVID-19.

Handwritten notes from investigators’ interview with Baker say Floyd had 11 nanograms of fentanyl per milliliter in his bloodstream. Baker told investigators that “If he were found dead at home alone and no other apparent causes, this could be acceptable to call an OD. Deaths have been certified with levels of 3 (nanograms).”

Baker added, however: “I am not saying this killed him.” Read more